Levett offers Richmond hope of financial levitation

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The Independent Online
Rugby Union

DAVID LLEWELLYN

As pre-emptive bids go, the entrepreneur Ashley Levett's pounds 2.5m offer to provide Richmond with financial clout is pretty daring. Firstly, the deal has still to be put to the 1,300-strong membership; secondly, Richmond are in the Third Division of the Courage League, albeit with a two-point lead and promotion a distinct possibility.

The aim is to bring top class rugby back to the Athletic Ground, and their president, David Buchanan, said: "Richmond intend to return up to where they belong."

Symon Elliott, chief executive-designate, a business associate and friend of Levett, added: "We believe Richmond can become a driving force in British and European rugby." To that end Elliott acknowledged: "We have made unofficial approaches to a number of England squad members. But no offers have been made."

Yesterday's press conference sounded almost like a fait accompli, yet the club has still to be registered as a limited company, and they still have to call a special general meeting to vote on turning one of this country's oldest rugby clubs into a serious business.

But the 35-year-old Levett - who will hold an 80 per cent stake in the club with the membership being offered the balance - and the Richmond committee do hold a few trump cards. There is the cash (within 12 months it is intended to raise more money through a rights issue which Levett, based in Monaco, will underwrite to a maximum of pounds 500,000); and also the admission of Elliott, after some persuasion, that he has already had what he described as "a couple of chats" with the England pack leader, Ben Clarke. It would be a surprise if Clarke did not join them. His father, Bevan, is a personal friend of Levett; Clarke is sponsored by a company started by Levett; and the Bath No 8 helps out with some coaching at Winchester RFC, the Hampshire League One club which Levett owned until recently.

"I cannot see Second Division status preventing us from attracting international players," said Elliott, an Oxford graduate and Sunderland fan who used to sell peanuts as a youngster at Roker Park. "We will pay the market rate," he added, saying that six-figure salaries for the right men would not deter Richmond.

The committee is confident of the scheme being supported at the SGM and one member - the RFU secretary, Tony Hallett - gave it his wholehearted approval.

Hallett, who was chairman of Richmond nine months ago, said: "I think this is an opportunity the open game gives, that we wouldn't have been able to take advantage of. I am totally supportive and I will say that to any members who ask me."

The plans are to improve the facilities, increase the crowd capacity and concentrate on player development by promoting a youth academy of rugby.

The club would be controlled by a five-man board of directors - two of whom would be shareholding club members - with day-to-day running falling to a seven-man management board headed by Elliott.

It is not envisaged that Richmond's 100-year plus groundsharing arrangement with Second Division London Scottish will be an obstacle either. "The Scottish see this is as a very good scheme to get the ground redeveloped at Richmond's expense," Hallett said.

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